Friday, December 28, 2007

Through the eyes of an 8 year old...

This morning we got up at 7 to glassy waves, just around head high, breaking a bit more consistently and a little more softly than before. Paddling out was a relative breeze, hair not even wet. Pelicans, in morning formation, skim across the building sets about a surfboard length from me.

Beautiful wave after beautiful wave glides in. I paddle for my wave and just as I catch it, I know I have it--and I pull back and slide down the backside. Instead of trying to get up when I had the wave, I bailed. Frustrated, the only explanation I had for myself was that after so many years of trying and falling and failing -- I was just sabotaging myself now.

I watch Nic--up and at 'em. Taking a ride, taking a fall, taking a ride, fall.

I lower my standards to just, get a wave and fall. Fall big. Just do something.

So it comes, the same wave repeated -- I paddle hard and get up to fall. Strangely -- I'm on my feet, standing and riding and turning and smiling.

I look up to see two Costa Rican eight year old boys watching me, smiling. One points at my board and excitedly shakes his hand in a "hang loose". I return the surfer sign and his eyes get wide. He nudges his friend to do the same. We stand in ankledeep water exchanging "hang loose" and smiles. Nic rides in and they point and do the same to him.

Funny how not being good doesn't really matter to 8 year olds. What it was, was good enough. Even impressive. It's just the act of trying and doing, of seeing something you hope to do someday -- when you're a grown up?

A flash of a memory. Of being 8 or 9 years old, standing on black-sandy beach of the Oregon Coast, watching Axel, my older brother by 9 years, wading out in a tattered wetsuit with an old-yellowed surfboard, for brief coldwater rides and tumble after tumble in the Waldport whitewater churn. As the sun set, and the cold beach grew colder I stood there til my fingers and toes were numb, watching him do the coolest things I'd ever seen...hoping that someday, when I was a grownup, I could do that too.

Yesterday Afternoon

Yesterday was pretty evil. The first real overcast day that didn't dissipate instantly via tropical storm. Instead the gray clouds sucked the vivid aquamarine from the waves and they took on a troubling-steely look as they grew to magnificent shape, one after the other, slapping down surfers throughout the day. Too beat up from the morning adventures for an afternoon pummeling, Nic and I took a driftwood seat and watched the show.

We noticed a few things:
1. there are some really, really great surfers who have that magical ability to tame the worst of the giant waves with finesse that's just mind-blowing.
2. much to our surprise, there are some not so great surfers here too. We've been so amazed by the great ones, we've been overlooking the now obvious fact that maybe we weren't the worst surfers out there.

We decided to focus on #2 for the afternoon. We picked a couple characters, dubbed them with nicknames and then watched...

Mareka - our new Hawaiian surfgirl friend -- she paddled out, duck dived with decent skill, once outside [we held our breath in anticipation of a great ride] she sat there. Perfectly balanced on the board, facing west, long hair draped over her shoulder, waiting and waiting as the afternoon sets rolled in. She caught a couple rides. One was an obvious, embarrassing dropin on this other dude. So she bailed. The second was nearly a repeat (with the same dude!)

New Girl - while huge sets come smashing on top of her, she stood about shoulder high in water, her board drifting, upside down with the fins up, as she'd alternate between walking and dragging the board and a half swim and drag. We watched her labored attempts to get more than 10 feet off the shore against the rip and waves. We strike up a conversation with an oldtime surfer from New Jersey -- he tells us more people drown in Hermosa than you'd believe. She shouldn't even be out there. We talk while one rescue alert.

Newbie - by far the favorite. On such a burly, big day, this guy haphazardly paddles out on a 8 foot rental. With each whitewater rush, his board goes flying up, but he pushes on and in a strange lull -- he makes it outside. Newbie is completely and dangerously oblivious. We're cringing on our log as he lays flat on his board, sometimes facing the shore and giving the thumbs up to his friends, sometimes facing sideways and falling off the board...meanwhile overhead, double-overhead sets roll by. The heartless rip seems to feel sorry for this guy, it pulls his careless barge down the coast, across the backs of giant waves where better surfers are pummeled for trying, never quite letting him inside enough to get smashed....until he heads in from the floatilla, and, in ankle deep water, a 5 foot tumbler sneaks up behind him and pummels him in the sand.

Boyfriend and Girlfriend - gave us hope. They paddled out together and we kept score for them. Rides vs. Failed attempts. Neither were epic riders, they missed about half they tried for. But they were a reasonable step up from where Nic and I were at. Compared to the few supermen/superwomen in the lineup catching 80% of the waves like it's nothing - these two had an attainable track record.

At the end of the day, we gave ourselves credit for trying, and slowly but surely making some bit of progress here and there, all under challenging conditions....and smiled, like catty junior high girls, with the realization that there really are some people out, at Hermosa, who are absolutely worse than us.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Near death experience?

Joya and I went out for our usual morning thrashing around 7:00. Things have been ever so slightly mellower for the past few days, waves head high instead of twelve feet high, so things have been a bit more manageable.

Anyways, the waves were a bit crazy this morning, and we spent much of the time just playing in the whitewater practicing our popups and generally goofing around. Now and then, things would flatten out enough that I would paddle out and try to catch a real wave and ride it in before it broke.

On one such occasion, I'm sitting outside of the main breaks waiting and I see a big set come in. One problem with Hermosa is that it's always big, there really is never a time when the average wave is less than five feet. Which means that occasionally big sets roll through where the waves are twice that tall, even on the smallest of days. You only really have two options when you see a big set roll in: a) paddle towards Australia, so they don't break on you or b) try to catch one and get out of the way of the others. Since I'm in no shape to catch these, I started paddling. Up and over the first steep pitch, I see the next coming at me.. paddle.. paddle.. Made that one too, but it was clear as I came over the back side of the second, that the third would crash right on me. Onto option b, though this was far over my head (in more ways than one) I tried to catch it.

You can all imagine what happened next.. it sucked me up the face and in a scene straight out of 'worst case scenarios while surfing' it pummeled me over the falls just as it broke. I will admit this wasn't the first time, so as before I assumed the fetal position to wait it out.

This is where it gets weird. Just after crashing in, everything turned perfectly still. No water rushing by, no being tumbled, not even the sound of the wave passing through. I just floated underwater in my tuck, perfectly still, untouched. It was so shocking and lasted so long that the thought crossed my mind that I might actually be dead. I just sat there for three or four seconds, perfectly still, then finally untucked and swam to the surface.

All was well of course, I pulled my board in and rode the next wave's whitewater on my tummy in, but it was an odd experience. Don't worry mom, these waves aren't killers, just enlightening.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Feliz Navidad! Feliz Navidad! Feliz Navidad!

It's Navidad in el bosque/the jungle!!!

We woke up this morning to the birds chirping in palm trees, an iguana scratching on a roof, red hibiscus, and the water's not working again at the Cabinas this morning. Merry Christmas! :)

Flip flops, sunglasses, suncreen (SPF 50), and sun-warmed sand that's so hot you have to dance a mini-mariachi to survive the distance from wave to cabina--it's always fun to me that people here smile when talking about el invierno, or winter. There's no long sighs of resignation or inadvertant shivers thinking about what's to come. Here, cozy-close to the equator, during the full 12 hours of brilliant warm sunshine, they drape gold tinsel on faded, plastic bows of a fake evergreen. Polar bears and rotund Santas grace sweating bottles of Coca-Cola. Festive, faded holly swags adorn the doorframe of the Jaco Taco stand. Fireworks popping, booming, glittering in a warm Christmas Eve night.

Over a special Christmas Eve lunch of tropical pizza (pine apple, bacon, mushrooms, peppers and cheese), Nic and I were noticing that aside from the very occasional Christmas decoration and "Little Drummer Boy" in Spanish playing on the restaurant's radio -- there's really no blatant, commercial Christmas presence in Costa Rica--or at least in Jaco and Hermosa -- there are no hoards of frenzied shoppers, no stores open 'til midnight, no invitations to spend all you have on things you (and your loved ones) probably don't really need. (Then again maybe it's all saved for TV, which we've not been watching) But --you can't help get the feeling that the holiday is not what it is in the states. It's refreshingly simple.

A day together, to relax and enjoy.........and eat tamales!!!!! Navideno tamales -- I was reading in the "Tico Times" (a Costa Rican newspaper that comes in both ingles and espanol) that a holiday tradition is for families to get together and make tamales. Like hundreds of them. Like enough to last from Christmas through New Years. (It sounds like a delicious holiday tradition to me!)

Greener Packaging

Grocery stores are always fun to go to in foreign countries. It's interesting seeing what American brands have made it, what the local delicacies are, and just in general how things are presented and organized.

One thing that both Peru and Costa Rica have that I've never seen in the states is much more efficient packaging for virtually everything. From laundry soap, to dish soap, Windex to milk, they package things in one use plastic bladders. This makes a lot more sense than the way we see it in the states, where you get a big brand new bottle to replace the one you just emptied.

The real oddity is that these are often the exact same brands found in the states, so the product is obviously available. I assume there must be some marketing reason, maybe consumer rejection, that we don't see things packaged in the same manner in the states. That's a shame, because it sure seems like a good idea.

Oh, and much to my shagrin, the main grocery store here "Mas por Minus" doesn't sell either plain gogurt or Captain Crunch, so my favorite snack just isn't possible here. I'll have to settle for Cheerios and plain old milk.

Oh ya, and Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Best Day Ever

Our first weekend jaunt away from Playa Hermosa was to visit the national wildlife preserve, Manuel Antonio. This is about an hour south, so we rented a car in Jacco and headed out Friday afternoon.

Driving in Costa Rica is something else, in this respect CR shares much with Peru. Drivers here take passing to a whole new level. Find the car in front of you too slow? No problem, just veer off into the other lane, no real need to check for oncoming cars, they'll get out of the way too. After a while seeing three cars abreast on the two lane road became monotonous.

Manuel Antonio is a major tourist attraction here, but the roads haven't really kept up. Several times we waited to cross rickety one lane bridges, with what looked to be old railroad rails making up the decks of said bridges. No policia were present to control who went when, instead when one side got frustrated as to how long they had waited, they would just start going, the other side be damned. Surprisingly, this seemed to work out just fine.

We arrived after dark and just found a hotel recommended in the book for supporting the monkeys here (10% of receipts go to a cute foundation started by kids). Great cause, lousy hotel, and we decided to step it up a bit the next night.

But first, onto the park. Everybody who comes to Manuel Antonio tells you about the monkeys, and we won't lie, that was definitely the big draw for us. Seeing a bunch of monkeys up close, outside a zoo, definitely has it's a peel. (hah!) The park itself is gorgeous though, a real jungle right on the shore it was like walking around in a green house all day.

Sure enough, the monkeys were there aplenty, but we also saw huge numbers of hermit crabs, some really colorful caterpillars, giant bamboo and even a deer or gazelle which used me as a salt lick.

After the park, we decided to give the much mellower waves of the local beaches a go. We've had our share of being tumbled time and time again at Hermosa, so playing on something slower breaking and smaller was great. We both got some confidence back, catching quite a few waves and just generally remembering why surfing was a fun activity, not necessarily one filled with near drowning, tumbling, fetal position "oh god I'm going to die" marathons like our outings at Hermosa.

Finally, we headed back to our hotel for the evening, a definite step up, and expensive at $150/night, but worth every penny. Our room looks out high above the canopy towards the ocean, is impressively clean, and even has hot water. (a real treat in Costa Rica!) It's nice to splurge a bit, especially considering our rather meager lodging at Hermosa, and I can say with certainty this place is worth every penny.

I see Baker is getting pounded with snow right now, I'm sure the skiing there is truly epic. But on this particular day, I wouldn't be anywhere else. Best Day Ever.

Friday, December 21, 2007

You see this board? I break it!

…It was either me or the board. I chose to break the board, actually it’s the first surfboard I’ve ever broken. And I felt really bad about the entire thing. Here’s how it went down…

Nic and I’ve spent a generous week of getting thoroughly hammered and destroyed (I’ll admit it, destroyed) in the huge closeout session that is Playa Hermosa right now (really, it’s pretty insane. ) Ordinarily, we’ve listen to locals tell us, it’s pretty mellow this time of year. But this—this is like competition stuff and so on… And you can tell, there’s people coming in from all over Costa Rica to surf the surprise big sets. The skill level is phenomenal . Over banana pancakes, Nic and I are in awe, watching and analysing aggressive popups, fluid and fast cutbacks, the charging man-sized barrels, cringing with the breakfast crowd over gnarly wipeouts and defeat. A guy standing on the hill holding two halfs of a board over his head. It becomes more and more common as the week rolls on. Boards breaking. Smashing. Splattering. (The good thing – hermosa is all sand, so human carnage is somewhat limited)

More about the playa: The slope is steep, really steep. There’s no such thing as a rolling reefbreak or even a typical, graduating level of whitewater you can expect from a beachbreak. Instead big sets (overhead or greater) charge through and there is a split second glimpse of a catchable green wave that (as it hits the steep steep floor) instantly explodes, simultaneously crushing down the line -- a breathtaking wall of angry green foam that pummels boards and men, indescrimanently. It’s pretty amazing and forces you to take up a shortboard whether you can handle it or not. Mareka, a fabulous Hawaiian surfer at Cabinas Arenas (ok, seems like everyone's a fab surfer here) told us it was totally giving her a run for her money—she’d never seen anything like it. But then after a few days she was getting the hang of it. Just don’t hesitate and get up. Fast. Or get smashed into sand.

Nic and I decided that the biggest day in Hermosa would be a great confidence building day in Jaco—where (opposite of Hermosa) the tourists were big and the waves were small. Asking for lessons from a cocky Costa Rican surf team member, now teaching on the beach – we find out we’ll have to prove ourselves on longboards before he’ll give us a chance on shortboards. He points to two behemoth boards that dwarf Sherbert (my special orange 9’ longboard at home). We catch crumbly anklebiters like it’s nothing. Turning left and right--around the bobbing touristas--with ease, prancing down the line to stick a couple toes over the nose. It’s pretty boring. Looking for more action, I paddle my way out as a gi-normous rogue of a wave glides in. We meet and it’s not pretty. I dive into the sandy green jaws and ditch the massive board. A slight tug and then dive, dive, dive submarine. Clawing at the ground, I’m no match for the 11 foot anchor and one killer wave that's powering it down into the sand. I’m wondering if this is how it ends, my getting dragged by my back leg. When suddenly it stops—water clears, I swim up for air and see Nic looking for me and three or so feet of a board, floating in front of me. I realize it's mine. I broke a board? At Jaco? I hop on my severed, but much more managable 9 feet of board. We careen in on the next whitewater wave, grab the three feet of fiberglass excess along the way and walk to the surf shack to face the wrath of the instructor. We talk him down from paying $500 for a new longboard (did I mention this board was yellow with age and already had three visible cracks/repairs) to $60 to fix it and leave it at that.

A fun story to share with the Playa Hermosa crew. The next day we see Mareka, as we’re leaving for Manuel Antonio. She laughs, shows us a cut and swollen arm – she broke her board today, her first board. She was paddleing out and it was big, really big. So big that when she dove into the wave, her board snapped and broke over her head.

My only regret is that I didn’t listen to Nic and take a picture of the carnage. My first board, broken by a strange crazy rogue wave in Jaco. It was pretty priceless.

Mas Notas de la Comida

Starting the list of the neat, tasty or interesting food ideas definitely worth trying to re-create back in the states. The interesting thing is that there's not a huge assortment of Costa Rican dishes.

- Gallo de pinto is pretty good too (a standard local breakfast of black beans and rice)
- Casado (the local dinner of seasoned rice with veggies and meat, my fav so far is shrimp)

These first two, gallo de pinto and casado, are pretty standard local fares, definitely tasty and will fill you up after a long day of work in the surf--but very mellow compared to the wide variety of colorful tasty things found in Mexico or other regions. Actually, most menues dedicate a section to Mexican foods so you can get cheesy/bean/rice/spicy goodness -- just haven't found mole yet....and no tamales...yet.

Another funny thing - pizza is huge! The town of Liberia seemed to offer pizza on every corner. Pizza is probably comes in second place to chicken. Pollo frito is king.

Here are the other taste hits of this trip:
- Banana con leche (y azucar)!! Best served with bits of blended ice, to add crunch and keep cool on a warm afternoon.
- Mango con leche!!
- Banana pancakes at Las Olas Restaurant (perfectly golden with bits of banana, topped with banada and granola, with syrup--it's amazing you can call this breakfast!)
- the multi-faceted breakfast burrito
- Pescado con coco (and just the whole concept of a build-your-own-taco-bar--me encanta!)
- Olive tapenade con pescado
- Garlic salt on the fries (sal de ojo encima de las papas fritas)...because your fries should be as salty as the water in the sea!

- Costa Rican Cafe. The coffee here is really great. Back home, I can drink coffee straight up, with a grimace and a head shake on the way down. Here--it's like heaven. Everywhere you go--great drip coffee. No need for sugar or cream. It's so smooth, no bitter aftertaste. I guess we're just close to the source? Less acidic soil? Whatever it is, it's fabulous.

Not really Costa Rican, but we finally caught the tiny "Costanera" restaurant open today (after two weeks of trying to catch them, abierto). They offer Italian fare with a Costa Rican twist. This morning desayuno Italiano included perfectly scrambled eggs, two slices of tomato with a shake of salt and oregano, two slices of a fresh (but low moisture) motzarella sprinked with pepper. A little quality olive oil over it all. Jugo de Naranja, tostado con mantequilla y fresas. Pineapple and papaya. It was an understated and fresh smorgasboard of great tastes, European style.

Costa Rican Food

It's a bit sad, but true that Costa Rica doesn't seem to carry the exciting menus of other Latin and South American countries. The best food here isn't from here. Also, perhaps due to the weak dollar, eating here is not the $2 or $3 affair it is in other countries like Mexico or Peru. Food is generally just a bit cheaper than the states, you feel like you got a good deal, but not a steal by any means.

All is not lost though, one new staple to our diet is the ubiquitous "banana y leche", basically just a blended drink of banana, sugar and milk. Let's just say there are few things as satisfying in the middle of the afternoon after the heat begins than a giant banana shake. And yes, even ones as big as your head go down easily.

Most restaurants here serve fairly typical fare. Costa Rica has undoubtedly been westernized in it's menu far more than other places, perhaps because the local food isn't anything too special. But they do a good job of stealing the best from neighbors and so there's really no shortage of yummy food, just a lack of exotic menu roulette.

We found a fish taco bar in Jacco yesterday that brought this point home. This isn't really local fare per say, more something from Mexico, but it was tasty, every so slightly a deal and fresh from the sea.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Sheriff

Hermosa is a tiny little place. There are maybe a dozen little hotels along the beach and nothing much else. A little convenience store provides the essentials (just found gogurt there!) and everything else is provided by the sun and sea.

In such a tiny place, there are a lot of personalities. One of them we've dubbed The Sheriff. He's a basset hound who seems to be everywhere we go and is known by everyone. The first night we found him at our hotel's restaurant, the next we were at another restaurant two hundred yards away and here he comes prancing in. The locals greet him with screams of adulation, the tourists can't help but pet him.

There are other dogs around, but none like this guy. I don't know if it's the big droopy ears, his instant roll to his back if you pet him, or that he just seems to have more skin than his body needs, but he's a fun fixture to have around.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Costa Rica for a Month

So yes, yes, we arrived almost a week ago and it's taken me this long to set up a blog. Most of that stems from traveling the first few days to our current location, Playa Hermosa. Playa Hermosa is located just south of one of the big surfing towns, Jacco. Hermosa is a mecca of its own, just much less developed. The surf here is some of the most consistent in Costa Rica, there are always waves.

Sadly, the surfing here is all on short boards. The break is fast and steep, making it impossible for long boards. That means both Joya and I are struggling to get the hang of short boards. It's much harder to catch a wave on a short board, much harder to get on, and everything has to happen five times more quickly. This has led to many, many rolls in the water in the fetal position for me, waiting for the wave to pass over.

But, ever so slightly, I think we are getting better every day. We decided today should be a rest day after trying to go out this morning and finding we didn't have the energy to get past the breakers. All in good time.

Don't worry, I won't blog exclusively about surfing, more on Costa Rica and it's culture to come, but as it's what keeps us busy four hours a day, it needed mentioning right off the bat.

The picture is from today, a big swell is coming in. This is actually while the tide is going out and the waves are much smaller, earlier in the morning the waves were easily 10 feet high and breaking with huge crashes. Oh and no, that's neither Joya or I.. in our dreams.